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Indiana associate head coach Brian Shaw, a former Lakers assistant, has been inspiring George to work harder by telling him stories of Bryant's exhaustive regimen of conditioning, training and video study. Shaw puts George through Bryant's intensive footwork exercises to create shots on the elbow. "Kobe works at game speed so that it becomes automatic, and when he's in the game his muscle memory kicks in," says Shaw. "I share this with Paul because I've seen flashes of what he can do. The sky's the limit for somebody of his height, length and athletic ability, and he has a great shooting touch. Now it's a matter of putting all those things together, but also to have that dog in him, that killer instinct. That part of it is up to him."
George is learning in a constructive environment, surrounded by teammates who are hungry to improve. "One day I'll be the most dominant big guy," says 7'2" center Roy Hibbert, who last month became the first Pacer to make the All-Star team since 2009. Picked 17th out of Georgetown in '08, Hibbert has already transformed himself twice since arriving in Indianapolis. Before last season he trimmed down to better run the floor; last summer he regained strength by packing on 15 pounds of muscle, which enables the Pacers to run their offense through him in the low post as a scorer and passer. "I'm the best passing big man in the game right now," says Hibbert. "I can say that without fudging."
Before Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien in January 2011, Hibbert was seeing a sports psychologist. "I used to be rah-rah, jumping up and down," he says. "But now I make a good play, I'm calm, and I'm not getting on myself for every missed shot." And on the bus ride after every game, he's watching video on his iPad of his next opponent—even on a night when his nose was broken in the first quarter by an accidental run-in with Bryant's elbow. Hibbert overcame the pain to contribute 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the win. "Between Roy and Darren Collison," says Vogel of his point guard, "I don't know if I've seen guys as driven to excel."
Collison, the 21st pick in the 2009 draft out of UCLA, has developed into an explosive threat who knows exactly where he's darting because his desire to prepare exhausts the Pacers' video staff. He's just another on the list of overachievers in Indy, which also includes George Hill, who was raised in the defense-and-execution system of the Spurs, and 6'9" Tyler Hansbrough, who overcomes his lack of size by incessantly attacking the basket—and opponents.
But the most unexpected success story of all is that of Vogel, who decided to leave Juniata College, a Division III school in Huntingdon, Pa., where he was a 5'11" point guard, in order to enroll at Kentucky as a senior in 1994. He had no guarantees, just a dream of walking on and the hope of building a career as a coach by working under the hard-driving Rick Pitino. Vogel wound up playing on the jayvee team while serving as a manager for the varsity. He'd practice from 5 until 7 a.m., then take classes—"I'm trying to take 18 credits to graduate in biology, which was stupid because it's science, and science in college is hard," he says—then fulfill his managing duties from 2 until 6 p.m. "At nighttime I'm bringing my biology books into the video room, doing edits, studying," he says. "It was probably a completely unhealthy year for my body. I didn't sleep." But he did a good enough job that Pitino hired him as a video coordinator when he became coach and president of the Celtics in 1997.
In the rare moments of rest he found in Lexington, Vogel would put on a video of Hoosiers and listen to the score as he fell asleep. "I love the music—it gives me chills," says Vogel. "I was a strange kid, I guess." Indeed, when he was much younger, Vogel attended a camp in his home state of New Jersey, and a counselor encouraged his audience to learn ball tricks. Vogel spent a week teaching himself to spin a basketball at one end of a toothbrush while he brushed his teeth with the other end. His parents got him an audition for Letterman, and when the video of his 1986 appearance surfaced on the Internet last year, he received more text messages than he did for becoming coach of the Pacers. "It's a little bit silly," says Vogel, "but that trick was my first experience in believing that anything can happen if you put your mind to it."
How far can Vogel take a team that lacks anything close to a Kobe, Derrick or LeBron? Maybe the best example is provided by Hansbrough, the backup power forward who believes he can become an All-Star. Hansbrough was supposed to be too small and short-armed to excel, yet he intensifies every practice and game by ceaselessly challenging opponents of all sizes who don't tend to appreciate his bumping and swiping. During the second quarter of a Feb. 4 loss to the Magic, Hansbrough had a hat trick of harassment, drawing shoves and scowls from Quentin Richardson, Earl Clark and J.J. Redick. On those nights when he goes unnoticed by opponents, Hansbrough wonders if he wasn't playing hard enough. "I feel like every game I'm mixing it up with somebody," he says. "It's pretty normal."
Hansbrough played well as a starter at the end of last year (he averaged 15.3 points in the final 19 games), but West's arrival meant a return to the bench. Before signing, however, West agreed to play eight to 10 minutes a night out of position at center so Hansbrough would have time to contribute and improve. It might seem counterintuitive in a league of me-first players, but that's how Indiana does business. Can such a team realistically expect to beat the superstars at playoff time? The Pacers know they'll be doubted, but that is precisely what helps them to believe.